What it’s like to be an immigrant

The majority of my ancestors immigrated to the U.S. in the 20th century. There are a few roots I’ve had trouble tracing and possibly a bit of native ancestry via my maternal grandmother (who was born in Puerto Rico) but generally speaking my great-grandparents came from across the Atlantic and settled in New York. My father’s father’s parents spoke German (the prestige language at the time in what was then part of Austria-Hungary and now Slovenia and Croatia) and lived in a German neighborhood in Brooklyn when they came to America. In any case I’ve always been sympathetic to the idea of immigrants and immigration, not just for the practical economic benefits, but also out of sentimentality.

However, the US is by no means an easy place for immigrants. It’s a hard country to get into, the visa and green card and citizen processes are long and expensive and arduous, and once you do get in there’s discrimination everywhere and a certain type of politician benefits by trashing you and/or blaming you for the country’s problems.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun to get a taste of what that’s like, for two reasons. One, having a son here in Georgia means that I’m infinitely more invested in the country than I was when I got here. I can leave – and I can take my family with me – but my son, and I, will always have family in Georgia. His roots will always be here. If, for any reason, I couldn’t live here, it would be a hardship on my family.

Two, the country elected a party that is less friendly to foreigners than the previous regime. I’m not saying Georgian Dream is anti-immigrant or anti-foreign – not like Republicans in the US tend to be – but they are certainly a little more insular and a lot less solicitous of Europe and the US than Saakashvili was. There are a few little warning signs that have been creeping up that make me concerned about my current job and my long-term prospects in the country as a person whose primary skills vis-a-vis Georgia are in English.

The first sign is this wave of political prosecutions. Ivanishvili claims it’s a restoration of the rule of law and of justice, and there’s a good argument that he was elected because the people wanted exactly that, but the way it’s being done has people in and out of the country concerned that it’s more revenge than rule of law. As I’ve posted about before, Georgian Dream uses high rhetoric but its actions suggest that its leaders care less about the fact that power is being abused and more about the fact that it’s being abused by someone else. In any case, this is largely an internal matter, except that everyone is now saying that Georgia’s ties with NATO and the EU are going to suffer because the regime appears to be abusing power, and if Georgia’s ties with the West suffer, the role in Georgia of English, and English speakers, is threatened.

The second sign is the new regime’s approach to English education. They want to cut English education for first and second graders, and although a lot of Georgians seem to think first grade is too early to learn English, it isn’t, and they have no reason to believe that it is, and I’ve personally watched Georgian first graders learn English for two years now and I can vouch for the fact that there is no particular deficiency among Georgian first graders that would make them, alone of all the children of the world, unable to study a foreign language at age six. While it’s not unusual for educational policy to be determined by politics, and while Georgians have the right to collectively decide at what age they want their children to learn a foreign language, nevertheless we must be clear that cutting back on English education in this case is absolutely a political decision and is completely without basis in any linguistic or pedagogical science.

So the current regime is 1)pursuing policies that harm its relations with countries that do business in English and 2)cutting back on English education for political reasons. That’s not even to mention the limbo that TLG is currently in, with recruitment frozen and none of us knowing whether we will have a job come January. I have to admit, this worries me – but not so much on an economic level. It’s more symbolic. It’s more that it seems like the whole country is turning away from the idea of friendship with the West, and with that turning now politicians feel free to give voice to anti-Western and anti-foreign sentiment, and I’m Western and foreign and so it scares me a little.

Have people been a little less friendly to me since the election? A little less welcoming? Or is it my imagination?

Whatever happens, I’ll be fine. I have options, I have a home country that I can go back to and a skill set that can take me to Turkey or Korea or Oman or Brunei or a host of other interesting, faraway places. But what really struck me is what it must feel like to be an immigrant in the United States, and to hear politicians firing up the familiar anti-foreign, anti-immigrant rhetoric. I wonder if my job will be here in January [ed. 12/1/12: it will!], but I can’t help but think about what it would be like to live in the US and hear on the news about a new bill moving through the state legislature that would take your job away. I wonder if my child will grow up in a country where the public school system does an inadequate job of language education, but I can’t help but think about how immigrants in America must feel when their children fall behind because ideologues demand English-only curricula and fire teachers who dare to talk to the students in their native language.

I remember all the times I’ve said “I support immigration, but my ancestors learned English so people today should too.” They come back to haunt me when I study Georgian for an hour a day, every day, and still can’t put together the words to ask my son’s neurologist if it’s normal that he’s not following objects with his eyes yet. When I think about all the times I sought out other native English speakers here in Georgia, just so I could speak in my normal accent (which is fairly easy for natives, but nearly impossible for Georgians, to understand) it just makes so much more sense to me why people live in little enclaves throughout Brooklyn and Queens and how some people can live in the US for thirty years without really learning English. When communication is hard, everything is fatiguing – even a thirty-second exchange becomes a problem, and all you need to recharge is just to hear and speak the language you grew up hearing and speaking. And then I take that and I add to it the reality of living in a country where most people are actively hostile to the idea of interacting in your language, where the natives complain about having to push one to speak to an English speaker and where just talking to a friend on a bus annoys strangers. Where instead of giving you points for trying, like they do in Georgia, they assume anyone with an accent is just stupid.

Nobody ever said being an immigrant was easy, but I think until you’ve tried it, you can’t even scrape the surface of the reality of the day-to-day experience. And I suspect coming from America is about 50,000 times easier than going to America.

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2 Responses to What it’s like to be an immigrant

  1. Georgische Legion says:

    Immigration is anti-Georgian to it’s core. we’ve lost Inner Kartli and Abkhazia because of Immigration. personally speaking, Saakashvili betrayed his oath and allowed people that had no idea of Georgian customs, culture and so on to be accepted as citizens.

    We should start the deportation process and also reconsider our policies on immigration laws. there has to be a total change and it has to be harder for an Indian farmer to buy up half of Georgia and then get a Georgian passport.

    Don’t like it? leave.


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